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Climate Change: Mountain Ponds Dried Up in the Heat Leaves Amphibians Starving for Water

Sep 06, 2015 01:02 PM EDT
Pacific Northwest Wetlands
Researchers found that the ecologically important wetlands of the Pacific Northwest may become fast-drying in the near future under current climate change rates.
(Photo : Maureen Ryan/University of Washington)

Between less winter snowfall, increased evaporation and the lengthened period of drought occurring in the Pacific Northwest, amphibians are stressing as they lose their mountain pond habitats. 

"We've seen that the lack of winter snowpack and high summer temperatures have resulted in massive breeding failures and the death of some adult frogs," Wendy Palen, co-author and associate professor at Canada's Simon Fraser University, said in a news release. "More years like 2015 do not bode well for the frogs." Palen has studied mountain amphibians in the Pacific Northwest for many years. 

The researchers explained that in the harsh alpine environments of the Northwest, these mountain ponds act as oases for frogs, toads, newts and several salamanders that live and breed in the water, along with species ranging from shrews to mountain lions that visit these watering holes for a quick drink. Birds, snakes and mammals also feed on the invertebrates and amphibians that frequent these ponds. 

To understand how the effects of climate change and lengthening periods of drought would have on these intricate food webs, the researchers developed a new model that forecasts changes to ephemeral, intermediate, perennial and permanent wetland ecosystems. Their findings suggested that these animals were in for a very dry future. 

"This year is an analog for the 2070s in terms of the conditions of the ponds in response to climate," Se-Yeun Lee, one of the lead authors from the University of Washington's (UW) Climate Impacts Group, said in a news release

In their study, recently published in PLOS ONE, the scientists found that by the year 2080 more than half of these vital wetlands will become fast-drying and uninhabitable by its regular dwellers. The unique Cascades frogs, which are currently being evaluated for listing under the Endangered Species Act, are one of the many species at risk. 

"They are the natural jesters of the alpine, incredibly tough but incredibly funny and charismatic," Maureen Ryan, the other lead author and a senior scientist with Conservation Science Partners, said in the release. 

Since these ecologically important wetlands are set high up and out of sight, they often go unnoticed. However, in addition to providing breeding grounds, food and homes to a diverse range of species, they help store water and carbon, filter pollution and convert nutrients, the release said.

"It's hard to truly quantify the effects of losing these ponds because they provide so many services and resources to so many species, including us," Ryan explained in the release. "Many people have predicted that they are especially vulnerable to climate change. Our study shows that these concerns are warranted."

The researchers are currently working with North Cascades National Park to evaluate and restore natural alpine lake habitats using their new projections. 

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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